Presenting Zune HD = Horrible Disaster?

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The Zune HD is going to kill the iPod Touch! Steve Jobs is cowering under a back-office table! Or is he? Will the launch of the much-hyped Zune HD have significant impact on Apple’s virtual monopoly on the Portable Media Player market? Let’s take a look.

Today Microsoft launched a “slimmer, revamped version” of their blundering Zune. If you look at the specs, you may be impressed. Reuters put it this way:

The device, which goes on sale on Tuesday, has a claim of technical superiority over Apple’s iPods, with a state-of-the-art organic light emitting diode screen and ability to relay high definition video to a television.

Furthermore, the device feauters a radio receiver, wi-fi, and is priced at nearly 100$ less than the comparable iPod Touch. The sweet package is wrapped up by the Zune Marketplace to deliver content without the dreaded iTunes Store.

But all may not be so well in the Balmer’s monkey kingdom. Appleinsider’s interesting article quite levelly looks at the HW and SW components of the new Zune HD and its most-advertised 5 myths. I’ll summarise the most intriguing parts below.

Myth 1: OLED is a great display technology for mobile devices

Just when you thought Microsoft had given up on the Zune as a product and had retreated to referring to it as a nebulous cloud of conceptual features, the company comes out with a new device supporting a mobile-optimized OLED screen, a wildly powerful yet super efficient new multi-core Tegra graphics processor and support for high definition radio. The problem is that none of those things are actually true.

A good quality LCD actually uses ambient light to make its image brighter and more vibrant; OLED does not. This means when you take it outside, the OLED’s screen is completely washed out by sunlight. Unless you only plan to use your mobile device in your dark basement, you don’t want one of today’s OLED screens, particularly on a mobile media player that you might expect to use on the go in various environments.

Microsoft sets up its demos in the dark because the Zune HD looks terrible outside, where its contrast ratio advantage observed in ideal conditions completely falls apart. Engadget’s other pictures of an OLED-using Sony Walkman show that without the candle-lit smoke and mirrors, OLED blacks are not black at all.

Sony and Microsoft try to compensate by giving their OLED devices a dark, mostly black user interface. Unless you will exclusively be using your Zune HD to watch gothic movies in the dark, the screen will be gobbling up more power than an LCD. This is particularly the case if you want to browse the web, which involves a lot of white space. Showing a white background, OLED consumes as much as 300% of the power of an LCD. Any colors that rely upon those those fragile blue pixels are particularly power inefficient.

Myth 2: NVIDIA’s Tegra processor leapfrogs existing mobile processors


The Tegra is built by NVIDIA, leaving Zune fans to suggest that it delivers industry leading, desktop-gaming type graphics that far exceed the capabilities of industry-standard mobile graphics. However, Tegra isn’t a scaled down version of NVIDIA’s PC graphics GPUs. Instead, it’s based on technology NVIDIA acquired in its purchase of fabless chip designer PortalPlayer in 2007.

So, while NVIDIA’s Tegra grew from the humble origins of the chip powering the video 5G iPod, the iPhone 3GS and the latest iPod touch models feature a mobile-optimized GPU core descending from the Sega DreamCast. While Imagination’s PowerVR GPU never made it into the desktop GPU market to rival the technology from ATI and NVIDIA, it has become the gold standard in mobile GPUs.

It’s difficult to make fair and direct comparisons between different generations of technology, but NVIDIA’s own demonstrations of Tegra’s ARM11/integrated graphics show it achieving 35 fps in Quake III. The same software running on Pandora’s Coretex-A8 (also used in iPhone 3GS and iPod Touch 3G) with SGX GPU core achieves 40-60 fps.

Myth 3: Zune HD is mobile HD (We already know that the iPhone 3GS and by way of parenthesis, the iPod touch 3G is capable of HD playback, and perhaps outputMore evidence here).

Microsoft is promoting the Zune HD as supplying HD video and HD Radio, purposely conflating the use of “HD” as a meaningless marketing term. There are two issues here, the first being HD video display and output. The Zune HD’s OLED screen isn’t high definition in the sense of HDTV, of course. The screen itself is only 480×272, which is significantly less than the iPhone/iPod touch at 480×320. (That’s 130k vs 153k pixels; the iPod/iPhone displays 18% more pixels).

If you’re buying a mobile device primarily to act as a fixed movie player docked to your HDTV, the Zune HD offers a curious advantage in that regard. On the other hand, if you expect a mobile media player to deliver a mobile experience, the iPod touch delivers both a significantly better screen resolution and a better display technology, unless of course, you’re planning to always stay at home in a candle-lit basement.

Myth 4: Zune HD delivers high definition radio

Unfortunately, HD Radio was given an intentionally misleading name. The HD in HD Radio officially doesn’t stand for anything anymore, but it was originally for “hybrid digital,” because HD Radio is all about replacing or augmenting analog radio with digital transmissions. It offers both an all-digital option as well as a hybrid digital option that enables radio broadcasters to augment their existing analog radio broadcasts with a digital version, something most opt to do so as not to alienate their existing analog radio listeners.

Like HD Radio, Europe’s DRM and DAB+ all have their own flaws helping to hold back widespread adoption of digital radio standards, including a lack of compatibility amongst each other. This is all relevant to the Zune HD because it effectively makes its main feature usable only to Americans. That’s also why Microsoft is restricting sales to the US; who outside the US would buy a media player with HD Radio features that aren’t even available outside of the US, and which isn’t compatible with the digital radio standards that are available locally?

Myth 5: Zune HD games and software will wow you

Despite being first and foremost a software platform vendor, Microsoft has a schizophrenic history in delivering a mobile software platform. The Windows CE foundation that the Zune HD is built upon is regarded as a joke throughout the industry, even by Microsoft’s own developers. Windows Mobile, which delivers an additional layer of software on top of the Windows CE kernel to support PDAs and smartphones, is also scoffed at. Given its dismal performance in the market over the last decade, that reputation is well earned.

Microsoft’s own software for Windows Mobile and the Zune HD is similarly bad. Its mobile version of Internet Explorer still doesn’t work despite having been on the market since 1996. What’s “new” in the release of the Zune HD is a different version of the mobile IE browser, based not upon the creaky IE 4 engine from 1997 (still delivered in today’s Windows Mobile devices), but a mobile version of IE 6, which dates back to 2001. That leaves the Zune HD’s browser nearly a decade behind the modern WebKit browsers used in the iPhone, Palm Pre, Android, and modern BlackBerry phones.

If Microsoft is doing that poorly in games and web browsers, what can one expect from the Zune software store, from media integration, and from the third party developers Microsoft has abandoned along with its past Zune initiatives? Are they going to come flooding back to welcome the few enthusiasts who keep returning to buy obsolete-at-arrival Zune hardware?

Time will tell, but my personal feeling is that the iPod is safe for the moment. And at 70+% marketshare, Apple is one step closer to TAKING OVER THE WORLD!

brain15

[via appleinsider]

Got more a few more Zune HD tidbits below:
Microsoft’s Zune touch… er HDThe Elephant in the room: Zune HDMicrosoft’s touch killer or handheld deathknell

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